Choosing a Psychology Graduate Degree
A Guide to Psychology Specializations and Graduate Programs
Psychology focuses on the mind and behavior, and how factors like culture, society and the economy affect individuals and groups of people. While careers in psychology vary from direct service roles to research and academic positions, those with a graduate degree in psychology are better able to pursue specific licenses and practice in their chosen field. The following guide reviews the various degree paths and tips for finding the right program, highlights prospective careers and provides insider knowledge from a working psychology graduate.
Find the Right Psychology Graduate Degree Concentration
The types of psychology graduate degrees available are as unique as the individuals they intend to serve, with specialized programs available to students hoping to work in various areas. Whether planning to complete a master’s or doctorate level degree, the following programs are well-matched to a spectrum of research areas and interests.
MS in Clinical Psychology
Students interested in the science behind human behaviors and psychiatric issues are drawn to clinical psychology programs, which emphasize studies in the theories behind mental illnesses, deviance, psychiatric issues, and abnormal behavior. Graduates can be found in healthcare facilities, governmental agencies, and university settings.
MS in Counseling Psychology
Students aspiring to administer therapies to patients often take this path, which provides an in-depth study of the psychological and behavioral theories needed to treat clients. Graduates may counsel individuals, families, children, communities, or professional groups and find work in a variety of settings, including private practice.
MS in Experimental Psychology
These programs take a macro-level look at the field of psychology, specifically understanding the basic human psychological processes of learning, memory and cognition. Much of the work is researched based, with special emphasis placed on developing skills in designing studies and using scientific methods. The majority of graduates can be found in research facilities and universities.
MS in General Psychology
GP programs instill the foundations and theoretical principles of the discipline while also teaching proper research and practice methods. Some programs allow students to specialize in a particular area, while others focus on general principles entirely. Graduates are equipped to work in governmental agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations.
MS in Health Psychology
Health psychologists focus on helping individuals, groups and communities live overall healthier lives by highlighting ways to improve mental health, stress, activity levels, and daily nutrition. Courses focus on these topics while also developing students’ knowledge of psychological principles and research to deliver holistic care. These professionals may work in governmental agencies, community health organizations, research agencies, or healthcare facilities.
MS in Industrial Organizational Psychology
Sitting at the crossroad of business and psychology, IOP programs prepare students to assess, identify and provide solutions for businesses. A large emphasis is placed on understanding human behavior and motivation as it relates to relationships between employers and their employees.
MS in School Psychology
With a focus on the psychiatric, behavioral, academic, and home-life issues commonly encountered by children, this degree prepares graduates to understand the cultural, social, community, and family factors that influence a child’s behavior. Graduates commonly work with other professionals in the school system to develop a holistic plan for betterment.
MS in Sport Psychology
Sports are often called a head game, and sports psychologists work with athletes to help them improve their mental performance. Students learn about theories related to intervention, motivation and performance enhancement throughout the program. The majority of graduates will work with professional athletes, college teams or as consultants to a variety of clients.
MS in Social Psychology
Providing less emphasis on direct client interfacing, social psychology programs are more concerned with understanding what drives humans in social settings. Students consider questions relating to thoughts, feelings, connections and actions between humans while also reviewing group versus individual dynamics, self-identity and the influence of power.
Doctor of Philosophy
With a focus on the research side of psychology, students enrolled in these programs work closely with academic researchers and faculty mentors to gain hands-on research experience. They learn how to develop research projects, conduct studies, collect data, and present their findings to academic and medical outlets. Some programs allow students to concentrate on a specific area of psychology.
Doctor of Psychology
]Students enrolled in these programs are planning to go into professional practice, working directly with a variety of clients and providing psychotherapy. Students learn about theories and techniques in the field and how to incorporate research findings into their practice. They also have the opportunity to practice their skills under the supervision of licensed psychologists.
By The Letters: What Type of Degree Serves You?
Aside from various concentrations, psychology graduate students are also able to choose from numerous degree levels, depending on their future plans. Whether looking to move into applied psychology and work directly with patients or aspiring to work as a researcher or academic, students can scroll over the options below to learn more about advanced degree paths.
Psychology Graduate Degree Timeline
Whether at the point of applying or already enrolled in a program, prospective and current psychology students should keep a list of all the requirements situated between admission and graduation. Some of the biggest points on the timeline are highlighted below.
The majority or programs require students to complete both the GRE and the psychology subject exam at a satisfactory level to be considered for admission, while other departments may also require a MAT score. Candidates should give themselves ample time to study for these tests, typically at least 12 weeks.
The FAFSA®, the federal government’s funding application, can be filled out on the first day of each new year, with funds awarded on a rolling basis. Aside from federal grants and loans, students should also research any potential programmatic fellowships or STEM-related scholarships.
One of the most important steps after being accepted is finding a suitable faculty advisor, as this person will have significant input and impact on a student’s area of research, thesis and capstone project.
Comprehensive exams stand between a student and their future dissertation, requiring them to show mastery of a subject before being allowed to continue in the program. Comps are comprised of an essay component, an oral presentation and test, whether or not a student has digested course information properly throughout their program.
Master’s level psychology students often have the option to complete either a thesis or comprehensive exams, although some departments require both. Conversely, doctoral students are expected to complete a full-length dissertation. Theses differ from dissertations in that they normally don’t require the student to complete original research. Ranging from 40-80 pages, these projects are completed during the final year of study.
Another option often presented to graduate students is completing a capstone project, which is more experiential in nature. The overarching goal is for a student to demonstrate their ability to bring together various concepts and design an intensive project. Examples include case studies, theoretical evaluations, community engagement projects or a creative research project.
The majority of fieldwork placements take place at the undergraduate level, but many graduate level programs require an internship component for students to meet requirements for supervised hours. The length of these placements will vary by type and level of degree.
Searching for the Right Psychology Program
Once a student identifies the branch of psychology they want to pursue, the next step is finding a program matched to their criteria. Prospective programs need to check off multiple boxes relating to accreditation, faculty interests, success rates, and licensure preparation. The following list helps students see how potential schools measure up to their needs.
- Teaching Philosophy
Depending on their interests, it’s vital for students to research areas of emphasis within potential psychology departments. Individuals considering a clinical route should be sure their top choices are devoted to that facet of the field rather than applied psychology, and vice versa. Students who plan to use their knowledge and skills in a direct service arena should seek out programs that offer concentrations or specializations within their area of interest.
- American Psychology Association Accreditation
The APA accredits doctoral-level psychology programs, internship programs and postdoctoral residency programs and is recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education as the national authority on standards of education. Doctoral students should ensure their list of schools are all APA-accredited, while master’s level students should look for a school with a well-respected regional accreditation.
- Student Profiles
Understanding a school’s student body before enrolling will help students measure the level of a program’s academic standards. While meeting with a current student may be difficult, asking the program administrator about academic backgrounds, GPAs, standardized test scores and research focuses is a good place to start. This information will provide prospective students with insight into the rigor of the program and the likelihood of their acceptance.
- Program Success
Data about graduation rates, average completion times and the percentage of students with scholarships or loans informs prospective students about the success of a program. Departments with high dropout rates may be unsatisfactory, while those with a large percentage of students completing their degrees on time speaks to good mentorship and advising.
- Internship Placement and Success Rates
Clinical tracks typically require an internship placement as a significant component of the program. Students should try to find out how the internship process is administered, sites where students are gaining placements and how long it takes the average graduate to find a job.
- Licensing Preparation
The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards oversees licensing examinations and regulates the field. While the majority of states require students to hold a doctorate to receive licensure, 16 states provide some form of licensing for master’s level graduates. Students should ask how prospective programs prepare graduates for exams and what the student success rate is.
Ask a Graduate: Tips for Pursuing Psychology Degrees
Some of the best information prospective psychology graduate students can receive is from those who have gone before them and been successful in their careers. After successfully completing a master’s degree in counseling, Frank Healy has worked in a variety of academic and direct service roles. Keep reading for his insider knowledge and top tips for students considering psychology as a profession.
- Pick the right program
It’s important for prospective students to find a master’s degree program that will provide a combination of counseling courses alongside at least one course on professional ethics, which is vital to helping pass the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) examination.
- Focus on fieldwork
When it is time to complete fieldwork, students should pick a place that is similar to where they want to work after graduation. For example, if they want to be a therapist in an inpatient setting, pick a hospital. If they want to counsel in a collegiate setting, find out if their college counseling center takes interns. Doing fieldwork provides students with potential references when seeking employment and could even lead to a job after graduation.
Students should make good connections with their professors and other psychology professionals when completing fieldwork. They could be the ones that supervise them when seeking licensure later on.
- Keep your options open
Stay open to multiple possibilities of work. For example, I taught, did case management and counseled at the same time for a few years.
- Think of alternative routes
Students can get counseling jobs in community or private mental health centers with a bachelor’s degree and no license. However, many organizations want these employees to work toward their master’s degree, and eventually licensing, while working there. This is a good thing, because most people who work in the field want to advance their careers.
- Seek licensure
When you get your license, more options are available. Unlicensed psychologists can see clients who use Medicare insurance, while those with a license can see clients with any commercial insurance.
- Don’t forget about the licensure exam
As candidates accumulate hours of supervised work toward their license, they should start studying for their exam. Although I did not have to take it, a few years later I borrowed a coworker’s study guide to learn more.
- Consider specialized tracks
While still in graduate school, students should start to think about areas where they may want to specialize. These decisions often dictate the type of licensure you pursue: individuals who want to work in substance abuse pursue an LADC, those with interest in mental health counseling work toward an LPC, while those with a passion for social work aim for an LCSW.
Spotlight on Psychology Careers
Mental Health Counselors
Mental Health Counselors serve a variety of clients experiencing mental health issues in settings ranging from hospitals and schools to prisons and community health centers.
Salary range: $31,942 to $61,454
Projected growth: 19%
Marriage & Family Therapists
Marriage & Family Therapists help couples experiencing discord in their marriages to understand one another’s feelings and seek resolve. They also help their family members – often children – process emotions.
Salary range: $30,510 to $78,920
Projected growth: 19%
Industrial-Organizational Psychologists use their knowledge of human motivations and business to help companies create dynamic and productive working environments for both employers and employees.
Salary range: $51,970 to $145,480
Projected growth: 19%
Substance Abuse & Behavioral Disorder Counselors
Substance Abuse & Behavioral Disorder Counselors help their clients overcome additions to drugs, alcohol, eating disorders or other activity that harms themselves or others.
Salary range: $25,310 to $61,420
Projected growth: 22%
School Counselors work with children to sort through personal issues or problems at home. These professionals are dedicated to helping children find ways to not only cope, but succeed.
Salary range: $40,080 to $113,640
Projected growth: 8%
With 56 divisions of psychology and topical areas recognized by the American Psychological Association, prospective students may feel overwhelmed when it comes time to pick a specialty. The following list of resources provides an overview of the field and highlights some specific areas of practice.
- American Academy of Forensic Psychology
AAFP is the education and training arm of the American Board of Forensic Psychology. The organization sponsors an Early Career Scholarship Program.
- American Counseling Association
Students aspiring to work in a counseling role can find detailed information on the field as well as information about potential careers.
- American Psychiatric Association
Individuals considering a career as a psychiatrist can find research about the field and necessary steps for licensure.
- American Psychological
the largest organization representing psychology, the APA provides a number of valuable resources for students considering a career in the field.
- American Psychological Association of Graduate Students
This group, which is part of the APA, serves as an advocacy body for graduate students enrolled in psychology degree programs.
- Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society
This niche group is devoted to using evolutionary theory in business, medicine and more, and provides a list of resources and publications for interested students.
- Asian American Psychological Association
Among other resources, this professional body has a symposium for students interested in the intersection of psychology and the Asian American community.
- Association for Applied Sports Psychology
Student members of AASP have access to numerous student-led initiatives, special interest groups, video resources, conferences, and awards.
- Association for Psychological Science
The APS offers grants, mentorship and internships to help students get involved in the field of psychology while pursuing their degree.
- Association for Research in Personality
The ARP offers newsletters, journals, awards and general resources focused on how personality factors into psychological theory.
- Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences
This organization serves as a central body for societies focused on the fields of behavioral psychology and brain sciences, providing students with an overarching view of the field.
- Health Psychology
HP offers lots of helpful information for prospective health psychology students, including a handy FAQ section on training and an early career professionals podcast.
- International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology
A membership site where students can review academic publications and peruse job listings, the IACCP offers signups for the students here.
- International Association of Applied Psychology
The IAAP offers focused information for graduate applied psychology students, including relevant research studies and available awards.
- International Positive Psychology Association
Students interested in pursuing research on how positivity affects psychological issues can find many resources on the IPPA website.
- National Association of School Psychologists
The NASP website provides helpful information for students studying school psychology, and has an entire section dedicated to graduate students.
- National Institute of Mental Health
The NIMH awards a number of graduate scholarships each year to exceptional students and also curates a list of relevant resources.
- National Register of Health Service Psychologists
Students can find an array of scholarships and awards along with a list of illuminating publications.
- Psychology Today
This popular publication covers topics from all corners of psychology and helps introduce students to common themes and issues within the field.
- Society of Clinical Psychology
This society offers a special membership for clinical psychology students, and access to a number of awards, resources and publications tailored to their interests.
- Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology
SIOP has a variety of grants and awards for students pursuing industrial-organizational psychology degrees, as well as an internship listing and job board.
- Society for Occupational Health Psychology
SOHP offers a list of institutions offering occupational health psychology degrees, career resources and job listings.
- Society for Personal and Social Psychology
Students can find awards, resources and events geared toward helping them become social psychologists, as well as general information about the field.
- Tennessee Psychological Association
Many states have their own psychological associations offering special benefits and programs for students, as demonstrated by the state of Tennessee’s active association.
- The Society of Experimental Psychologists
Since 1904, SEP has provided various resources for experimental psychologists, including a range of awards and fellowships.
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